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DVD TV: “Blazing Saddles”

A modern black man trying to make his way in the Old West: That wasn’t just a plot device for Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles; it was the moral centerpiece of the movie.

“The engine that drove Blazing Saddles was (society’s) hatred of the black,” Brooks admitted. “It was race prejudice. Without that, the movie would not have had nearly the significance, the force, the dynamism…” Brooks added, “I figured my career was finished anyway, so I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry.”

Co-screenwriter Andrew Bergman came up with the idea after seeing an image of H. Rap Brown—the incendiary chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967—on horseback. “For a lot of reasons, you couldn’t make this movie today,” Bergman believed. “You couldn’t say ‘nigger’ in a movie today, even in a comic way. I mean, Richard Pryor was the last person who could do it in stand-up.” (When Blazing Saddles came out in 1974, Pryor was still using the word in his routine; after a trip to Africa in 1979, he swore he’d never say it onstage again.)

Almost as hard as imagining Blazing Saddles without the N-word is trying to picture it without Gene Wilder yet Wilder was not the director’s first choice for the Waco Kid. Far from it.

“Dan Dailey was my choice,” said Brooks. “Strange choice, but I thought: leather-faced, big heart. I heard from people he was the best rider in the world of any actor, except the cowboy actors.” But when Brooks offered Dailey the part, the old actor “called me back and said, ‘I’m blind, I can’t see. I’m wearing coke bottles for glasses. It would be dangerous.’”

So Brooks approached John Wayne about the role of the drunk, worn-out old gunfighter. “I met John Wayne at the commissary,” Brooks recalled. “I gave the script to him. He said, ‘I’ll meet you here tomorrow at 12 noon, the same table. I’ll read this overnight.’ And he read it and he said, ‘I can’t do this. This is too dirty. I’m John Wayne. But man, I was up all night screaming, laughing. I’m gonna be the first one on line to see this movie.’”

After trying to convince Johnny Carson to take the part, Brooks settled on Academy Award-winner Gig Young, who had a well-known drinking problem. Brooks recalled, “I had seen a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Gig Young in it and I said, ‘He’s an old alky, great.’ I got the guy.”

But on the first morning of filming, trouble arose.

Brooks said, “We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, ‘This guy’s giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He’s giving me the old alky shake. Great.’ And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever cast anybody who really is that person.’ If you want an alcoholic, don’t cast an alcoholic… Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”

“I stopped production, Friday at noon,” Brooks recalled. “I said, ‘We’re in for a day, whatever a day costs—$30,000, $20,000. That’s a day. Everybody go home. We have to think.’ I called up Gene Wilder. I told him what happened.” Wilder (who’d lobbied unsuccessfully for the part early on) was at home in New York when he got the call. The next day, he was on a plane.

"He saved my life, because he’s not only a genius actor, but he’s a good friend. And he never said, ‘I told you so.’ I wanted an old alky. I got a young Jew from New York—and he was magnificent.”

To learn more about Brooks’ landmark film, check out DVD TV screening of Blazing Saddles on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

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